In preparation for the general election in New York State on Nov. 7, candidates for state and local offices initiated door-to-door campaigns to increase voter participation rates from a historical average of 60 percent on election day.
The Democratic Party candidates for the Dutchess County legislature, which includes Professor of History Rebecca Edwards for District 6, contest the Republican majority with strong objections to recent social and financial policies. Edwards, along with Giancarlo Llaverias for District 1 and Craig Brendli for District 8, formed a panel discussion titled Meet the Candidates hosted in Rockefeller Hall by the Vassar Democrats on Sept. 25.
As the number of jobs and residents in Dutchess County continued to fall from last year’s levels, Democratic candidates for the county legislature pointed out loopholes and design flaws in recent legislation.
Edwards explained, “I disagree with what the county is doing for economic development. They’re trying to create jobs by giving big tax breaks to big corporations, and they aren’t even creating drawback provisions. So when the companies don’t do that, they keep the tax break for 30 years. They gave a 10 million dollar tax break to IBM two years ago.”
In the absence of a drawback provision, IBM may retain the tax break without any obligation to increase or keep employees at the Poughkeepsie campus. The number of employees at the Poughkeepsie and East Fishkill campuses has steadily declined from a combined total of 13,800 staff in 1993 to 6,105 staff in 2014, when Global-Foundries acquired the East Fishkill campus from IBM and continued the job cuts.
On a related aspect of financial policy, Brendli elaborated, “Dutchess County is in a situation where the job growth isn’t happening. We can start by addressing sales taxes.” Brendli went on to suggest that shifting the emphasis from tax breaks for large corporations to a lower sales tax rate would encourage local business to provide more services and set up shop in the area.
The primary focus of financial policy proposed by Democratic candidates is economic growth and revival at the local level.
Edwards outlined, “I believe in a model of economic development called community wealth building, articulated by the Democracy Collaborative, among other groups. One of its strategies is anchor-based procurement: asking anchor institutions—colleges, hospitals—to take the lead on buying local and supporting nearby businesses. That’s a promising approach, and Vassar is well prepared to take a leading role.”
Llaverias, a local paralegal, believes that social policies have been less prominent under the direction of Republican Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro and the two-thirds Republican majority in the county legislature.
He reflected, “The reason that got me involved in politics was my community. I lost 23 friends to drugs. Being the kid who went to college, they came to me for answers and I didn’t have any. I’m very committed to my community. My brother is 10 years younger than I[am] and he’s losing friends as well… The opiate epidemic, the drug epidemic is huge.”
Putting everything in perspective, Edwards agreed, “Dutchess has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, with over 220 deaths in the past five years.”
Rather than choosing community-based approaches to social problems, the local government has tended to focus on centralized institu- tional responses.
For example, plans to expand correctional facilities have worried Democratic candidates like Brendli, a Poughkeepsie schoolteacher who described, “We have a very strong message on that. One of the things we [Democratic legislators] tried to do last term was reduce the size of the Dutchess County Jail. Because we represent seven Democrats in a group of 25, we didn’t win that battle, but we did look to right-size that discussion. We can’t stop construction, but we want to stop at state-mandated beds and nothing more. We don’t want to turn this into incarceration central.”
Edwards considered other social concerns overlooked by local government and further explained, “We have a crisis in lack of affordable housing. The Republican county government has, in recent years, eliminated the consumer protection office and slashed youth programs, mental health support and other services. So it looks like there’s a great deal more local government could do.”
In addition to policy, voter participation is a particular worry for elections this year. New York State already ranks 41st in terms of voter participation, and rates are typically even lower for off-years when state and local elections do not coincide with national elections.
Carlos Espina ’20 arguedin an interview, “Voting in local elections is important because the reality is that many of the important decisions that affect us and daily lives are made at the local level.”
Espina continued, “One way to convince your friends to vote is to inform them regarding what is at stake during elections and make sure they fully understand that if they do not vote then they are essentially giving up their voice and lose their power in the process.”
On Election Day, students in the Town Houses will vote as District 8; the Terrace Apartments, Cushing, Noyes and Ferry will vote as District 6; and the other residences will vote as District 1.
The campus community at Vassar has both a political and an economic influence in local affairs.
On the economic side, Edwards noted, “Vassar is a major local employer, and I think the College should strive to be the best employer it can be. We should make sure students, employees and alums continue to give back to the local community in all the ways we do and keep working to build stronger ties and better understanding between the college and the community.”
Edward’s decision to run for office emerged from the same spirit of engagement and active participation in building community.
She observed, “I’ve been active in community organizations for a long time, and as many students know, that helps you learn what works and what doesn’t about local government … Seeking ways to get involved, after the Women’s March, I heard over and over that what the Democrats need is candidates: people willing to step up and work hard. So after conversation with my family, that seemed to be the most effective way to make a difference.”
Edwards added, “It’s been amazing to have students volunteer to get involved in the campaign, and it’s an honor to represent Vassar in the community. I hope also to share some of what I’m learning here on campus. Being a ‘newbie’ in politics at age 51 is humbling and also wonderfully educational.”
From the perspective of a student volunteer in political campaigns, Espina agreed, “Back in Texas I helped with multiple campaigns ranging from presidential all the way down to city council. Going door-to-door and speaking with all kinds of people, you come to realize that it is hard to generalize and that every person has their own beliefs and interests when choosing who to vote for. This forces you to see voters, especially those who don’t agree with you, as individuals with real concerns that are often similar to yours.”
Local politics for this reason can be highly complex. Commenting on the political balance in Dutchess County, Espina concluded, “In fact, it might come as a surprise to many that in the 2016 presidential election Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by only 464 votes in Dutchess County. 132,288 people voted in total … Given that the elections for the County Legislator and other local positions are often decided by double-digit—and even single-digit—margins, it is important to realize that your vote will truly matter here.”